Thursday, October 7, 2010

Night Class-Aliester Graves-Professor of Mortuary Sciences

  Last night (10-7-2010) I spent about 4 hours, with some film department students at Univ. of North Texas, just to get about 3 minutes of actual film, but it was a very important 3 minutes and they wanted it just right.  I was portraying a mad professor that is sort of a cross of Professor  Snape (from Harry Potter) Hannibal Lector, and Dr Frankenstein, who is actually the host of a series of vignettes rather like Hitchcock presents, Night Gallery, Twilight Zone, tor that sort of thing, but with a campy spoofed horror show quality to the vignettes.  The series is called "Night Class" and my character is an eccentric, and obviously tenured, professor of mortuary sciences at the fictional "university" who blends sarcasm, insanity, and a touch of sadism (toward his students anyway) in a campy, but intense introduction and closing of each episode.

We were originally contacted by a friend, who is directing this series, about making a special prop for the first show.  They need everything to be perfect as the film is not only for a grade, but is being submitted to the university's TV station as a pilot for a continuing show which will air, locally at least, as well as on the internet.
Making the prop and/or costumes, was no problem as we do that routinely, but then he asked about playing the main villain of the first show.  He is a campy, stereotypical mad scientist.  I won't tell you anything that is a spoiler for the show, but what is important is that they needed someone that was middle aged and experienced to play the mad scientist as they do not have talented enough makeup people yet to do a really good job of making a teen look old, and the actor would have to be able to move like a crotchety old man.  I was able to fill the bill and it sounded like fun, even though all my acting has been stage, rather than film, which is much more different than you would think.  My film experience has been strictly educational videos, which are sufficient to get one over the surprisingly intense and bizarre phenomenon of camera fright, but is very undemanding in terms of lighting, role playing, sound quality etc.  I didn't, for example, have to do retakes every time I left out the 4th inclusion of the word "but" as the first word of a sentence, which they were using repeatedly as a transition phrase in a sentence (in a 90 second bit of film) which my good breeding (academically that is) and creative writing editor/tutor experience rebelled against subconsciously.

Well one morning about 6 am, I get a call, no several calls, on my cell phone.  Fortunately we are up around that time, just not very awake yet. The director tells me that while he is certain I would do a great job as the mad scientist, he had a film student that worked so hard on doing such an excellent audition with excellent body language (translate that as a 20 something guy actually able to make you believe he was an old man without any make up-a truly rare talent)  He didn't want to change me to a different character, but also didn't want to turn down a student that did such an excellent prep for the part, when this was essentially a film department project.  I told him immediately that I agreed wholeheartedly!  Instead he wanted me to do the other "old guy" role, which was also a bit bizarre and difficult, but a much shorter role with far fewer lines as he didn't get anyone talented enough to audition for that role that he thought could pull it off.  I agreed immediately.  The catch was, that part was filming in 48 hours and I hadn't read the part at all.  I also had to work a full time job and take care of a 9 year old while preparing for this.  All perfectly normal insanity for the world of semi-pro drama!!!  Drama being the catch phrase here!  Most actors actually get money to pay bills by some other means that is flexible enough to allow them to do roles when they can get them.  They also have to accept unpaid roles (like this one) at times in order to gain experience and build a resume.  Fortunately, I have no ambition to do acting as anything other than fun, so I'm not under the level of pressure those people are, but it's still pretty crazy!

So....let me take you through my experience on a film set, well...lets say, the budget version of a film set on location.  They had pretty good professional equipment, and generally knew how to use it, but were not experienced enough to get such an extremely difficult lighting concept to work quickly.  In other words I sat there talking to myself for about 90 minutes while they attempted to both increase and decrease the room lighting at the same time and use spotlights without getting visible shadows.  Absurd right?

Keep in mind that I started reading the part only 48 hours prior and got so overwhelmed with other duties, I didn't get to actually learn and practice it until 24 hours ahead.  It was short, so that shouldn't be a problem, and realistically, sleeping on a memorized piece definitely does not help you retain it.  As such, I decided to mostly memorize it the day of the shoot.  That would be fine, but I had to do this while driving to work and to the shoot after work with a short practice at lunch.  I used a tape recording of my own voice reading the script in character as using a paper script while driving pretty much ensured dying before the filming.  That actually worked pretty well except that my wife convinced me to use her nifty miniature digital recorder which has really small buttons with really small print on them and I can't read at that print size without reading glasses which magnify too much for me to drive.  What a dilemma!  It would have been fine using something familiar as I could hit the rewind and play buttons by feel.  Note to self:  listen to self when getting a funny feeling that using something new is a bad idea when pressed for time. Fortunately it really was an excellent little device that worked well once I learned to find the buttons and get around it's very different way of organizing recordings into files.

I also used the paper copy as I recall things better if I say the lines while looking at the words in print.  It has to do with having visually linked or heavily visually oriented memory.  Actually I am even more "feeling oriented" than visual, but could not seem to get the piece of paper or the recording device to send out any empathic emotional patterns to register or get any physical tactile props to work with while driving.  As such staring intently at the words on paper and burning them into my memory while saying them with feeling was my best memory device, but I was still forced to use auditory memory, my worst learning style, most of the time as it was all I could do while driving, without crashing the car.  This is why I would not have agreed if it had been a long part with so little time, on scheduled working days, to prep.

It all worked out.By the time I was able to get in front of a camera, I was rearing to go!  Of course that was after I found them after walking the halls, rather strangely dressed and carrying a bag with something moving in it, (my therapy dog which I use in my psychology practice)  through a 4 story Biology Building while classes were going on and looking for an apparently invisible film crew.  Professors were quite surprised when I asked if they had seen a film crew as the guys setting up were being very stealthy about it so as to avoid disturbing any classes.  I was given the room number, but had left it and my cell phone at home while grabbing everything else, included the afore mentioned super ray-gun prop they needed later, and getting my son to school while running out the door.   I finally found them and learned that my phone would not have helped even if I had it as they have to all put their phones off or on absolutely silent mode as even vibrate runs a big risk of a retake due to sound pollution.

I faltered only slightly on the first run through (which isn't filmed) and was pretty smooth after that. The biggest problem I was having at this point was that I could nto get even a moment to discuss the character and delivery approach to the lines with the director before I was in front of the camera, because he was too busy trying to fix lighting problems to talk to me about the part at all until after we were ready to film.  In the end I just asked for a "campy level rating" that he wanted from 1-10 and then went for it, allowing him to observe my interpretation then tell me what to speed up, slow down, or do differently in what way.  It was a clumsy and uncomfortable way to hash out a character and a style delivery, but we were pressed for time and the narrator didn't actually have a character description to work with, but he needed to have a strong character in order to make this lead in, the very first thing the audience sees in the show, intense rather than passive, so we really worked on it! 

As I started the first run through, they discovered that putting intensity and a touch of madness into the lines, which they really liked, sometimes caused volume spikes that would distort the sound recording.  They then had me repeat this one line about a million times...well OK, maybe only 10 or 20 times, while they tried to find a way to keep the line intensity without spiking the volume into the red without turing volume down too low for other parts.  In the end they had to train the "boom operator", the poor guy stuck holding a mike up on a 10 foot pole above my head for 3 hours, how to anticipate my lines and pull the mike away from me right before the two loudest parts.  As that wasn't going so well, I suggested I face down at my desk on the loudest line to disperse the sound and avoid the spike in volume hitting the mike which was over my head.  They agreed, and it solved the problem, so we could get to the actual lines before by brain went to mush and I forgot them all.(actually they still had to use the boom lifting technique later as I slammed a book down on my desk in a very "Professor Snape" (angry, sarcastic, professor) like move to startle the students into attentiveness before stating something very important, so I had to do several takes extra while they worked on learning new recording and boom mike techniques.

Most of the problems with lines had to do with articles, conjunctions (yes kids we are back to Sesame Street's wonderful grammar rock, but only because the script wanted me to do what I had 50 years of training not to do!), and the ever present run-on sentences that usually started with the word "but".  They said it was a good lead in that helped to shift the tone.  They were right!  This is a place where art and grammar just don't mix!  Just don't bother trying to tell your English teacher that unless he/she is also a closet dramatic theater type or they will just label you "rebellious" and treat you like all the other creative type individuals in the public school system.  Well at least now you just get a bad grad instead of a whipping or the stocks, so I guess that really is a little progress over the last few centuries!

After about two hours of this non-stop grind and retakes because of camera angel, camera focus, insufficient head clearance in the shot, or most frustrating of all ... a retake because a lock of my hair , which was purposely pulled forward and disheveled, falling in my face!  While on stage I would have simply brushed it aside and considered it added realism, with a director who wants the best possible film, he is likely to cut and splice the hell out of things that he wants 3 (at a minimum) perfect or near perfect shots of everything, so he can pick the best, most intense, and most dramatically interesting pieces to splice together.  As such, if a book, my lgasses, my hands, my hair or anything relaly noticeable was out of place, he yeleld cut and re did the take so it would not look like my hair teleported or something if he spiced sections fo the scenes.  He wasn't really being obsessive about this.  He was only doing retakes if it was something pretty obvious, but it happened a lot even when I got the lines and delivery perfect for them.

After two hours of this, I started leaving out lines, reversing things in a line, reversing order of lines, and finally just blanked totally on a line I knew had to be there, and worse couldn't recall what came after it.  My back was also starting to hurt from hours of driving, working a full day, and sitting on backless chairs, while under stress for 3 and a half hours (counting the wait time while they fussed with the very complex lighting setup.  I told them I needed to get up and walk a bit, get some water, and get some kind of protein to settle my blood sugar.  They agreed.  Fortunately I remembered that I'm hypoglycemic and ate two bean burritos on the way there, while driving and trying not to ruin my costume with the hot sauce by wearing my sun visor as a lap protector in the car.  This was before trying to rehearse lines using the mini tape recorder etc of course.  Unfortunately it was wearing off, and I was nibbling on Altoid mints (you can't really eat anything while filming as you can imagine what the voice sounds liek with a mouthful of anything.  Hard candies in your mouth while speaking are almost worse, but I was having minor allergy problems which distort your voice, so I had to use water sips and Altoids to keep my voice more clear, and the sugar int he Altoids, plus the intense mental processing was causing my insulin to rise and my brain glucose to fall to the point where I couldn't remember lines that I had down cold when I arrived.

Fortunately, a short walk, a stretch, half a bag of spicy Cheetos (nuts would have been better, but I was also trying to clear my vocal chords of allergy symptoms) and some slow deep breathing to get rid of the adrenaline surge caused by frustration with myself blanking on a line got me ready to resume in less than five minutes.  Apparently the crew needed a break too, so they weren't unhappy with me insisting on one.  I should mention that I get frustrated and a little irritable if i mess up any line, but actually blanking out on lines all together is terrible, because you can't recall where the plot is supposed to go enough to just fake it and continue on.  This could be potentially fatal to a stage production, but no big deal on film-the one real saving grace in fact that makes all the other insanity of film almost worthwhile.

On stage, most of the re-takes, which don't' exist at all actually, would never have been necessary.  Lighting, is not so difficult.  Sound is normally dependent on a good set of vocal chords, actors that can project their voice, and patrons buying good seats so they are close enough to hear rather than complicated microphone systems.  There is also no need to take at least 5 really good shots of everything (3 standard-good takes, 1 close up, and 1 at greater distance to permit pasting together something from multiple angles and views with only one camera when a full film crew is unavailable) , so I was unaccustomed to this regime.  On the other hand, really freezing on a line, where you dont' just stumble a little, then pick up the next line or at least make something up until you remember the lines, can cause an entire professional show to get bad reviews and be canceled.  In other words, after millions of dollars in production costs, you can make a single mistake that causes hundreds of people to suddenly lose their jobs, and worse , their chance at fame, and ruin your own career and reputation in the bargain.  No pressure.  Really!At least in film, grueling as it is, anything, and I mean anything, can be fixed!

In the end, we got something that they were extremely happy with for the introduction/lead in to the show, and for the closing sequence that sets it up for another episode if they can sell the pilot (quality programming wise as there is never any actual money involved in University TV channel programming even though they do agree to advertise in the credits and elsewhere for funding.)  Actually the script calls for commercial breaks, but I thought they intended to put in spoof commercials to be funny, not real ones.  Maybe I'm wrong and they actually intend to have commercials to finance the TV station.  What a crazy world performance art can be!
Did I mention the line where I had to deliver the most tongue twisting and literally confusing "Chemistry Professor" quote the director could find, as fast as possible?  Imagine trying to say "Quickly, name 8 common synthetic, organic polymers.  Go!"  really fast with a straight face!   Remember, we had been doing this for about 2 and a half hours before we got to that part, so my tongue, or rather brain, was exhausted already, but I made sure it looked like a sadistic pleasure on the crazed professor's face just the same!

If they pick up the series, I was informed after the fact, that they will be calling me about once per month to do all of this again for each of the vignettes they produce.  What fun!  Hopefully it will get easier each time.

Below is a copy of a practice session.  It got refined about 40 or 50 times by the time it made the film, but it will give you an idea of my part as the show's host.  The first is the opening sequence and the second is the closing sequence before it fades to black.  You click on the link, go where it takes you, then click where it says download.  If you have speakers on or headphones plugged in it will play on your computer.
(opening sequence)
(closing sequence)

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